Just One Night – an alternative vigil for Sarah Everard.

I’m not as unhappy as I should be at the cancellation of the proposed vigil for Sarah Everard. What would it have achieved? What would it change? I’m exhausted with the same arguments going round and round and round. How many times have we Reclaimed the Night? How many stories have we shared around #MeToo? How many times, in how many ways, have how many women written about the need for men’s behaviour to change? The responses are always the same. It’s awful that women don’t feel safe, but it is what it is and would you rather carry an alarm or stay home forever? It’s #notallmen; equally, men are men and aren’t going to change. Radio 4 gives airtime to a woman who tells us that women mustn’t get hysterical. There’s always a brisk woman who says that they’ve never had a problem, and if other women just walked confidently, they wouldn’t have a problem either. Men tweet that they get attacked too. ‘Yes,’ women say for the hundred thousandth time, ‘By men.’ We’re implored to think of the toll on the poor men, constantly being associated with behaviours they’d never dream of committing. Metaphors about locked cars and bowls of crisps or Skittles do the rounds again and again, and we are left exactly where were were, and Sarah Everard walks home one night in bright clothes, sticking to the well-lit streets, on the phone to her boyfriend, and is murdered. 

I did not know Sarah Everard, but I could have been her. Any of us could. And like many people, I would like to mark her death in a meaningful way, that does not intrude on the private and terrible grief of her family and friends. The conversation has to change, in a way it has not yet.

 In spite of certain experiences, which I’m not going to share here except to say #MeToo, I like men, and would miss some of them terribly, not least my husband and sons. Men’s mental health is a serious issue; women’s safety is a serious issue. I do not see why one should be sacrificed for the other, or why I must educate any of my children in fear. When a good, loving, considerate man finds himself lumped in with the entitled pricks who flash and grope, he’s bound to feel defensive. When the very necessary connections are drawn between men who flash and grope and men who rape and murder, then most men – not all men, but most men – will grasp at anything they can to deny that connection. Men feel defensive; they reject, push back, deny, reframe. Feeling persecuted and helpless is not good for anyone’s mental health. What can I do? ask the good men helplessly. How can I help? But even the question pushes the mental load back onto women. Women cannot solve this. Women are already forced to assume the responsibility for their own safety, and we have learned over and over again that it simply doesn’t work.

What I propose gives men – yes, all men – an active, constructive and powerful way of commemorating the life of Sarah Everard and of paying tribute to the small acts of self-protection that women perform every time they leave their homes. It gives men a forum for engaging in the conversations they need to have with each other if the experience of the women with whom they share this beautiful world is to change.

For just one night, I would like the men to stay at home. Just one night. One night, to make a statement that they are listening. One night, to show that they acknowledge that it is men who make women unsafe. One night, to show their readiness to be part of the conversation that takes us forward. Men could talk to each other about why they choose to participate, or why they don’t. One night for men to make an active statement, to have a genuine, meaningful way of saying, I want to help. To communicate their concern through action.

Just one night. One night to start the conversation from a different place, in the hope of ending up somewhere new.

One month till publication – January

So here it is. Twenty one sleeps until The Ship is published. Twenty one sleeps until I am a published author. And here are some good things that have happened:
The inaugural Curtis Brown Book Group selected The Ship as its first book choice, and tomorrow I get to answer questions in a live online forum, from people who have read it. It’s hard to describe how excited I am by this – it’s right up there with seeing the proofs and hearing the audio book being recorded.
Last week, I hosted the first 40+ Debut Authors’ Lunch. Thirty two authors from all over the country descended upon Covent Garden and talked to each other. Writing is a solitary pursuit by definition, so to meet other writers – particularly other debuts – and realise that we are all in this together, and that we can and will support each other, was a truly uplifting experience. It was particularly special that this lunch arose from nothing more than a passing observation on Twitter – Are there any other 40+ authors publishing debuts out there? – which became a conversation, which became an idea, which became a lunch. If you’d like to join in, let me know – the only criteria is that you published your debut – or have a contract to publish your debut – over the age of 40.
And I’m still glowing because this morning, my six year old asked if he could have a copy of The Ship to give to his teacher.
Three good things that are yet to happen:
Two launches, one in London, just around the corner from my protagonist Lalla’s flat, and the other – on 19th February, launch day itself – in Bristol, a city I greatly fear would be underwater if the events of The Ship came to pass. The Bristol launch, at Foyles Cabot Circus, is a public event open to anyone so please, please come along. Spread the word. There’ll be wine AND cake.
On Tuesday 17th February, I’ll be joining nine other authors who’ll be reading while the audience eats cake and drinks cocktails. The readings will be short and the cocktails will be named after our books. The event is at Drink, Shop and Do (just around the corner from King’s Cross station).
And on the 24th February, I’ll be at Short Stories Aloud, a wonderful evening hosted by Sarah Franklin on the fourth Tuesday of every month. Professional actors read short stories by two guest authors (so I’ll get to meet Lucy Ribchester, too), and the authors take questions, and it’s lighthearted and serious and absorbing and fascinating all at once. Oh, and there’s cake. Lots of cake. I’ve been in the audience and loved it, and can’t wait to be a part of it from the other side.
So, as the months have ticked down into weeks, and the weeks are ticking down into days, it comes down to this: Nothing has changed. I’m still scrabbling about for time and space; my life is still ruled by school uniforms and homework and housework and meal preparation and the ever-present, often unattainable wish to spend at least some of my life with the man I chose to share it with. Sometimes it feels as though James and I are partners in a twenty-four hour enterprise, constantly covering for each other and only pausing for long enough to pass the baton. And yet, everything has changed. I am a writer. I don’t know what’s going to happen to my novel. I don’t know. My fervent hope is that it does well enough to give me the chance to publish another. But – yes, even more than that – what I hope for, as The Ship sets sail, is that my story so far can offer light to anyone else who’s driven to write. Because it was hard. It is hard. Impossible, even. And yet, The Ship is there, in all its primary-coloured cover art glory, actual and real and solid, with printed pages and a dust jacket and everything.
It can happen.

This Morning I am Very Angry

So. Stuart Kerner, a 44 year old teacher, had sex with a 16 year old pupil. He had sex with her at the school and at her home over an 18 month period. This happened in Britain, a civilized, democratic society in which children have rights and are valued. Stuart Kerner’s fate was in the hands of the law. And the law states that a child under the age of 18 cannot consent to sex with a teacher. It’s there to eradicate the grey area (what grey area? What?) about pupil/teacher relationships. It’s about the balance of power and it’s very clear. Stuart Kerner broke the law, and Stuart Kerner came to trial.
The law gave Stuart Kerner an eighteen-month sentence.
The law suspended that sentence.
Now let’s be clear. Kerner has been put on the Sex Offender Register, which precludes him from teaching. And the decision to suspend a sentence is available to a judge, and can be implemented for a wide range of good reasons. So what were those good reasons in this case?
Judge Joanna Greenberg QC’s decision was taken for reasons that should boil the blood of anyone who gives a fuck. The last time I was this angry was when Victoria Coren-Mitchell posted a blog asking for an appreciation of nuance in the Roman Polanski rape case. I don’t think there’s a great deal of nuance in the anal rape of a thirteen year old girl. And I don’t think there’s much nuance here, either. He was a teacher. She was a pupil. He was responsible; she was the victim.
But Greenberg didn’t see a child. She saw a temptation, an emotionally manipulative siren. No matter that the girl, according to Greenberg, ‘was vulnerable and needy and had a troubled home life.’ She was a stalker. Her friends said so. ‘There is no evidence you groomed her,’ Greenberg said to Kerner. ‘If anything, she groomed you.’ The girl had a history of lying; the Guardian reports Greenberg as saying she ‘showed no compunction’ about lying when it suited her.
Stuart Kerner (and this is a 44 year old teacher we’re talking about) was ‘emotionally vulnerable.’ He’d been manipulated. And his wife had had a miscarriage. A probation officer says Kerner considered suicide before the sentence was announced.
So the sentence was suspended because she was at fault. He was the victim. That pesky law, hey, we can’t get round it – but we’ll do what we can to minimize the impact that witch has had on your already troubled life.
But wait. He carried a condom around so that they could have sex at school if she became too ‘irresistible.’ There’s no way that a sixteen year old girl would respond to that by actually trying to be irresistible, is there? There’s no way she’d hang around hoping to see him, hoping he’d notice her and prove, using the language he’s taught her, that she is indeed irresistible? That’s not grooming, is it? And meeting repeatedly? Did she do that on her own?
Presumably there was no way on Earth he could have reported her stalking behaviour (which couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with proving herself irresistible, could it?) to senior management. He couldn’t have avoided being alone with her at school. There was no other course open to him, as the victim of an intelligent, manipulative schoolgirl, than to bring a condom to school, put a chair under the handle of a cupboard and push his penis inside her.
So. What have we learned this morning, readers? We’ve had a good many lessons in recent months. Women – well, we’re already there on not getting drunk, not walking alone in the dark (in fact best be home by sunset), not getting into unlicensed minicabs and not wearing provocative clothing. Oh, and not having too many opinions. And perhaps best to avoid being a lesbian in South Africa. Or a girl in India. But today, thanks to Judge Joanna Greenberg QC, we’ve learned that being a sixteen year old girl with a crush on your teacher is off limits too.
And men. You’re fifty percent of the world’s population and you’ve got so much going for you. You wouldn’t let misogynistic crime dramas (like The Fall – ooh, there was a wicked siren of a teenager in that, too, wasn’t there?) or even an intelligent, experienced QC persuade you that sixteen year old girls are anything other than sixteen year old girls, would you? Not just because you have, or may one day have, daughters, but because you are loved, and our future as a species rests on us seeking to understand each other.
Being a stalker, a liar and emotionally vulnerable proved to be a crime in a young girl, but was Stuart Kerner’s vindication. Like Ched Evans, Stuart Kerner protests his innocence, and like Ched Evans, he seems to think he’s suffered enough.

Two Months till Publication – December

I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks. But Christmas is quite a big thing round here. Four children who still believe in Father Christmas and the Advent Fairy (lovely fairy, brings a small present every day and leaves a note saying where to find it. Except she doesn’t always remember to put the present where she says she’s put the present and the whole house has to run backwards for a few seconds in order to turn back time so we can try again. It’s quite time consuming). Lots of non-family children (and adults) we like to buy presents for. Small traditions – the Muppet Christmas Carol, crepes for breakfast on the last day of school, doing the rounds of the pharmacy, the surgery, the paper shop with mince pies and gingerbread snowflakes…plus, this year, my determination to get the children to a theatre, to see my sister in Sheffield, and the children’s own growing desires to see their friends, to bake things we haven’t tried before, to decorate all the drinking glasses with Sharpie pens. And, of course, the ever expanding round of concerts, nativity plays, parties, final sessions of dance/swimming/Cubs/Brownies, to which parents are cordially invited. For which much thanks.
And a lovely friend who lives locally had her first baby this week. That’s the kind of thing everything stops for. And another friend, who’s training to be an opera singer, organised a concert in aid of the most important charity in the world (to us), and my Sheffield sister brought her boyfriend to visit, and I had the chance to go and see the audiobook of The Ship being recorded, and so here we are, on Christmas Eve, with much done but still more to do.
Nothing stops for a blog post, and maybe this one wouldn’t have happened, except for this: yesterday, Sophie Buchan, an editor Weidenfeld and Nicolson, practically alone in the offices, took delivery of the finished hardback of The Ship. Even thought I’m not Sophie’s author, Sophie arranged for a courier to bring me a copy. A courier! So yesterday, in the middle of a baked ham and a rosewater-scented nougat glacé and a panic about insufficient green veg (because green veg are what everyone wants from a Christmas dinner, right?), a parcel arrived. And, because Christmas is largely about the children, and about other people, and because we long ago decided not to exchange presents between adults, and because I’d been off Twitter and so wasn’t expecting anything, the contents of the parcel were a complete surprise.
Reader, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. W&N have created a font for the title, and they’ve carried it through in the chapter numbers. The cover is strong and vibrant, but it’s vulnerable, too, and asks difficult questions, just like Lalla herself. When you open it, all you see are words on paper. You can’t see the life’s blood that’s been poured into it, the things I had to give up in order to find the time to write it, the frustration, the rejections, the sleepless nights, the number of times I decided, in my own interests as well as everyone else’s, that it was time to find another brick wall to bang my head against. There’s just this book.
Maybe it’ll succeed out there, maybe it won’t. Maybe I hold a new career in the palm of my hand – maybe I’m just holding a book. On February 19th, it’ll be out there. Hopefully, you’ll read it, and Lalla’s story will mean something different to every one of you, and from that moment on, The Ship will belong to anyone who picks it up and gives it the gift of their time. And I can’t seem to think about anything else.
There’s so much more I want to write. I want to write about the incredible experience of watching the audiobook being recorded, and the stunning voice talent that is Melody Grove. I want to write about about January’s 40+ debutantes’ lunch (if your first novel was published when you were over 40 and you fancy meeting others, do get in touch). I want to write about the people I’ve met this year, writers aspiring and writers published, publishers and agents and industry professionals, book bloggers and readers, and about my complete failure to locate the Magic Fountain of Unlimited Time. I want to write about the joy of rereading Middlemarch and the wonder of all the new writing I’ve loved this year. And about the sheer magic that was Forced Entertainment’s production of The Possible Impossible House at the Barbican, which got a measly review from the Guardian’s (adult) reviewer but held my crew (and me) spellbound.
But, y’know, there was this baby. And so my writing world’s going to stop, just for a few days, while the house fills with extended family. Of course there’ll be arguments and disasters (my poor mother, arriving yesterday to find my kitchen in chaos, washed up as a surprise and threw out my carefully-prepared sugar syrup which was cooling for sorbets). Of course the board games will cause tensions and we’ll all eat too much, and we might come to regret buying that longed-for drum kit, however much we’re looking forward to seeing it being opened. But when it’s over, what we’ll remember is that we were together. The future is unpredictable, but for three short days, we’ll devote the present to each other.
Happy Christmas, everyone, and thank you for reading.

Three Months till Publication – November

Three months doesn’t sound like very long.

It doesn’t sound like very long at all.

By the end of next week, I should have decided on and booked a venue for the launch party. On Twitter, where everything is shiny, I shall post much (genuine) excitement about this. But here, on the blog, with more than 140 characters at my disposal, I can admit that I’m terrified. If I wanted to be the centre of attention, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to be able to do a job where I’m completely alone. And yet I desperately want to be the centre of attention because, you know, I wrote a novel, and it’s going to be published, and that’s a cause for celebration. And that contradiction has me in its clutches and is threatening to crush me altogether, a bit like the scene in the rubbish compactor in the original Star Wars film. James is either Han Solo, firing off his laser guns in an attempt to be decisive, or Chewbacca the Wookie, reduced to grunting inarticulacy by my dithering and insecurity. My mother is C3P0, informing us in a polite and slightly panicked voice that we’re all going to die. All we’re missing is a woman in a spotless white dress screaming, ‘Don’t just stand there, brace it with something.’ (No wonder Princess Leia changed into a bikini for the sequels; much easier to hop into the shower than launder all those flowing white robes when you’ve had a brush with a rubbish dump. But I digress.)

So, it’s business as usual really. I’m squeezing the writing a novel around the house and children, and as they haven’t changed much, neither has the way I spend my time. My deal is just for the one book, so on one hand, I’m back at square one, writing with no guarantee of publication. On the other, I’m reliably informed that to be free of the pressure of the second novel is a good thing. Oh those crushing contradictions – whoops, down the chute and back into the rubbish compactor. Only by now, R2D2 has become terribly bored and gone off to have a cup of tea, and I really don’t blame him.

This month, I read an extract from The Ship in public for the first time. Years ago, I dreamed about giving a public reading. In my dream, I was calm and composed, secure in what I’d written, wearing something long and flowing and speaking calm authority. And I’d tried. I’d built in an extra hour to my travel time so that I could find a café near the venue and gather my thoughts. I’d sorted everything out at home. I hadn’t actually TOLD many people it was happening because they might think I expected them to COME or something, but other than that… And then someone threw themselves under the train in front of ours, and we were decanted at Wembley Park with no certainty of onward travel, and as I hurried umbrella-less around King’s Cross in the rain, trying to find the venue with less than ten minutes to spare, my poor mother rang to say that the seven year old had left her school uniform and bag at Brownies and the hall was all locked up. So I made my entrance dripping, smudged and anxious, juggling my ungathered notes and shouting, ‘I don’t know where Brown Owl lives,’ into my phone.

Ian Ellard and Nicci Cloke, who host a monthly Literary Speakeasy at Drink, Shop & Do in King’s Cross, were wonderfully welcoming, as were fellow writers Tom Melrose, Stephen Dea, Linda Mannheim and Marc Burrows. The event went beautifully, and The Ship (to my great relief) was very well received. The best bit by far was meeting the audience afterwards and talking books. It was hard to drag myself away in time for the last train home. In true Cinderella style, I left my Oyster card and my car key behind. Outwardly, therefore, the journey home was almost as fraught as the journey there. But I’d achieved something. Hanging on to that took the frustration out of the scrabble for change for the tube (since when was a single journey within zone one on the Tube £4 without Oyster?), kept me company on the long walk home in the dark and the rain, and took the sting out of the fact that the second car key proved elusive to say the least.

Being a published author is going to be full of those rubbish chute moments. They’re unavoidable in an uncertain industry – and publishing is full of uncertainty. When the walls begin to close in, the voice yelling for constructive action needs to be mine. And the something I need to brace them with is a belief in what I’ve achieved, regardless of what happens to it.

Which brings us back to the launch party. I’ll be the one in the long white dress and plaited earmuffs. I’ll leave to you spot James on your own.

In which I hope that Ali Smith wins the Goldsmith’s Prize

So tomorrow the winner of the Goldsmith’s Prize will be announced. I didn’t set out to read the shortlist, but once I’d read the Man Booker and Green Carnation longlists, I only had two more books to read. Ali Smith’s How to be both was my favourite for the Man Booker; Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and Howard Jacobson’s J were long and shortlisted respectively. Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist was longlisted for the Green Carnation prize. The other two novels on the Goldsmith’s shortlist are Zia Haidar Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know (beautiful title) and Rachel Cusk’s Outline.

Rachel Cusk’s work is never a comfortable read. She is uncompromising; her narratives cut through appearance and deception to the truth she finds at the heart of her characters. The trouble – and the discomfort – comes because what she finds in the heart of her characters is seldom contentment, or even honesty. The narrator is as liable as anyone else to present her own story in the most flattering light to herself. As a reader, I like to anchor myself in the world of the novel. Cusk won’t let me do that – she won’t even throw me a rope in the shape of a story arc as I try to navigate around the various life stories the narrator is told by those around her. The fact that each story is mediated by the narrator (a creative writing tutor) leaves the reader on shifting sands.

In the Light of What We Know uses a similar technique – the story is told by one character, but narrated by the friend to whom he is telling his story. The writing is poetic and the story itself compelling. But when a writer experiments with traditional narrative, there needs to be a reason for it, and I found myself wondering why the author chose to keep the reader at arm’s length from the story he tells. Occasionally I found myself confused as to whether an incident happened to the narrator or to his friend, and this confusion (my fault, but who, in the real world, is able to read without distractions of any kind?) meant I was never completely immersed. Cusk’s distancing device acted as a catalyst for intellectual engagement with the storytelling process – perhaps because there is no plot as such, no suspense in the traditional sense. But Rahman’s removed narrator does have a story to tell and it was frustrating, at times, to be required to dig for it.

I’ve written about the other novels in other posts; suffice to say that, despite the many merits of its rivals, I would love to see Ali Smith’s How to be Both win this year’s Goldsmith’s prize. It certainly ‘breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form;’ it is ‘genuinely novel.’ And it’s powerfully and delicately written, with two separate stories that are compelling in their own rights as well as illuminating of each other.

Roll on the announcement.

The Green Carnation Prize long list 2014

I first became aware of the Green Carnation Prize last year when it was won by a book I already loved, Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomons. Books bring people together; if a stranger loves a book you love, you’ve automatically got something in common. So while I’ve been reading the Baileys and Man Booker longlists (and, this year, the Goldsmith’s Prize, of which more in another post), I’ve kept an eye out for the Green Carnation longlist. When it came, it looked like this:

  • Through The Woods – Emily Carroll (Faber & Faber)
  • The Absent Therapist – Will Eaves (CB Editions)
  • The Fair Fight – Anna Freeman (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • All The Days and Nights – Niven Govinden (The Friday Project)
  • Vixen – Rosie Garland (Borough Press)
  • Thirst – Kerry Hudson (Chatto & Windus)
  • The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan (Salt)
  • In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie (Sceptre)
  • Any Other Mouth – Anneliese Mackintosh (Freight)
  • The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
  • Unspeakable Things – Laurie Penny (Bloomsbury)
  • Invisible Love – Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt (Europa Editions)
  • The Glasgow Coma Scale – Neil D. A. Stewart (Corsair)

I’d already read – and loved – Kerry Hudson’s Thirst (you can read Kerry Hudson’s guest blog on the WoMentoring Project here) and Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart. Anna Freeman’s The Fair Fight was already high on my tbr pile, as was Rosie Garland’s Vixen (solely, I’m ashamed to say, on the grounds of the beautiful cover). In short, the Green Carnation Prize longlist felt like home. We shouldn’t need the Bailey’s Prize (women authors), or the Green Carnation (LGBT authors) – every book should be judged on its merits alone. But here in the real world, did anyone look at this year’s Man Booker longlist and genuinely feel that there was no issue with the gender and/or race balance? Judge Sarah Churchwell pointed out that the Man Booker judges were confined to what publishers chose to submit, but that simply relocates the issue. And then there’s the Green Carnation. Eight women. Five men. A good mix of publishing houses. As refreshing as a cut lemon.

The Man Booker longlist was a very comfortable reading experience. The Green Carnation wasn’t – not always, anyway. The cut lemon is squeezed into society’s hidden wounds in Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things. It should be given out in schools, like the Gideon Bible. Mackintosh treads a finer line between memoir and story; still, the pages of Any Other Mouth fairly blister. In The Rental Heart, Logan uses fairy tale tropes to hold a fresh filter to familiar narratives; Emily Carroll uses illustration in a similar way in her not-a-comic-book Through the Woods. Hudson and Stewart both explore dependent relationships; their novels have completely different outcomes, but both pay tribute to the poor and the dispossessed, and play their love stories out at the bottom of our dirty, unfair and exploitative class system. Freeman and Garland take the reader back in time whilst maintaining astonishing contemporaneity – no mean feat. Govinden and Eaves use language and form over traditional plot to pull the reader through their novels. Schmitt encloses enough material for several novels in his short stories, like a silk scarf crumpled in the palm of a hand. Mukherjee’s epic encompasses class and privilege across Indian society; Mackie’s quieter tale of a man in search of himself is equally epic, although its subject is an individual rather than a country.

I hesitate to select my shortlist, partly because I don’t know how many books the judges are going to choose, and partly because the books are all so different. The books I’ve chosen are not only the ones in which I feel form is married most effectively with language and with character, but the ones which, for whatever reason, resonated with so much force that I can’t get them out of my head.

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things

Kerry Hudson, Thirst

The Fair Fight, Anna Freeman

Kirsty Logan, The Rental Heart and other fairytales.

Emily Mackie, In Search of Solace

Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist.

But whatever the shortlist looks like, I’ll be pleased. I’ve discovered new writers, and been both shaken and stirred. Thank you, Green Carnation, and deep and sincere congratulations to all the long listed authors.

Richard Flanagan – I’ve Imagined the Post-Booker Interview so that The Mail Doesn’t Have To.

I’m lucky enough to have an entirely imaginary Richard Flanagan (IRF) sitting at my kitchen table with an entirely imaginary journalist (IJ), and I’m witnessing the Post-Man Booker interview we’ve all been waiting for.
IJ: So, Richard – can I call you Richard? – congratulations on winning the Man Booker this year. We know your novel must be really good, because it’s just won the Man Booker, so shall we move on?
IRF: Well, I do have some things to say about the novel. It’s been said recently that the novel is dead or dying, but I don’t agree with that. In my acceptance speech, I said that novels are one of our greatest spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual inventions…,
IJ: Talking of aesthetics, I noticed that you wore traditional black tie to the awards ceremony. Interesting choice. Were you told what to wear, or did you decide to keep it predictable so that we could all focus on your work (which we know is good, because it’s just won the Man Booker)?
IRF: I’m not sure that really matters. As I was saying, novels are life…
IJ: But surely you included a cheeky individual detail in your outfit? Like one of those ties in the Presents for Men catalogue that looks conservative on the front but actually has a scantily-clad 1950s poster girl printed on the reverse? Can I call you Ritchie, like in Happy Days?
IRF: I was wearing a bow tie. And…
IJ: And what a style statement that is. Are you expecting the sales of bow ties to go up as a result?
IRF: I genuinely haven’t given it a moment’s thought.
IJ: Who did your hair for the ceremony?
IRF: I’m bald.
IJ: So should we all invest in a head razor? What brand would you recommend? Will you be looking for a sponsorship deal?
IRF: No.
IJ: So you’re already in a committed relationship, right?
IRF: Yes, and I want to pay tribute to my beloved Majda, who has travelled with me through many dark times…
IJ: Hands off, girls, he’s taken! Perhaps you could take the edge off our disappointment by telling us the secret to keeping a relationship going AND being a writer? Do you have date nights? Or a romantic meal you cook when Majda gets annoyed with you for writing all the time?
IRF: Er…
IJ: And what about children? Have you got any, and if so, how do you manage to look after them AND your partner AND write a great long novel all about a rather nasty war? Doesn’t it upset them to have you thinking about such unpleasant things? I mean, I’m not sure I’d want my parents writing about people’s wounds rotting in jungles and death by starvation.
IRF: I’m really not sure that’s relevant.
IJ: Are you saying you don’t have any children? That’s interesting. Is it a choice you’ve made so you could focus on your career, and if so do you feel an empty gaping hole at the core of your life where your self-definition should be? Can I call you Dick?
IRF: No. Can we talk about The Narrow Road to the Deep North?
IJ: What, the M1?
IRF: No. My novel. The one that’s just won the Man Booker Prize.
IJ: You are going on about that quite a bit, you know. Do you feel insecure in your success? I mean, do you think you really deserve to win something like this? I expect you feel a bit like an imposter who’s about to be found out. Who do you think should have won it?
IRF: All the shortlisted novels were great achievements. I felt honoured to be the company of such wonderful writers.
IJ: So you’re jealous of them?
IRF: Not at all. I admire them all enormously.
IJ: But you won?
IRF: Yes. Yes, I did.
IJ: Well, it’s not terribly attractive to hark on about it, you know. I’m surprised your grandmother never taught you that.
IRF: My grandparents were illiterate. I think that shows the possibility of the novel, and of writing, and of the power of words…
IJ: Well. Quite. I’m glad you feel so good about yourself. Good luck with that dark gaping hole in your life.
IRF: Are all my interviews going to be like this?
IJ: Probably not, actually. I’ve just realised that you’re not Ali Smith or Karen Joy Fowler.

Four months till publication – October

Having started this monthly countdown to publication by acknowledging that I needed to get some domestic help, I’d intended to use this post to write about the help I finally sought; what worked, what hasn’t worked, and about how, when you delegate something, there’s a strange patch of time when help actually consumes far more time that it saves. I’ve invested a great deal of time in the six weeks since our au pair arrived in establishing routines, and it’s beginning to work. The school run (an hour and a half when I do it alone) is now a shared chore; ballet and Cubs and Beavers and Brownies and Junior Choir are all firmly on the map; our au pair has started college and is making friends, and his willingness to run errands is of immeasurable value in protecting my time while the children are at school.
And then, on Thursday last week, everything collapsed. My mother had kindly taken the early school run; our au pair was gathering the later departure together; I was revelling in the thought of a rare early start to my working time. I dashed to fetch the vegetable monster which was to be the youngest’s contribution to Reception’s harvest decorations (the creation of which merits a blog post of its own), and there, huddled in the hallway and weeping into his mobile phone, was our au pair. ‘Mon père est morte,’ he said. My father is dead.
Nothing matters terribly now. Our au pair is nineteen. He has lost his father. Our children have had their first experience of loss – the father of the young man who’s been playing with them, taking them to school and making Saturday morning football possible, is far more immediate and relevant to them than the only other death they’ve been aware of, that of their Australian great grandmother last year. They haven’t always embraced our au pair, but the days between the news and his departure were filled with drawings and lovingly constructed Lego models, offered with shy deference and cuddles.
We cushion ourselves from death. We have new treatments, new drugs, healthier lifestyles, more understanding of how to live. We’re shocked when doctors put Do Not Resuscitate notices on the deathbeds of their relatives. Life expectancy in the developed world creeps higher and higher. Cures for once-fatal diseases are discovered. But still we die. It’s death that connects us with life. This is an important theme of The Ship; it’s also true. When we isolate and disconnect ourselves from the thought of death, we cut ourselves off from the curious wealth that is being alive.
And so, for the moment, I’m strangely content. Heartsick for the young man who’ll be attending his father’s funeral tomorrow, but glad in the chaos that is my life. Yes, I’ve got to get tea together; James is on a trip next week and has shut himself away to prepare; I’ve got another novel to write and can’t see when that’s going to happen, and four children to get to two different schools with four different start and finish times and no help. The children have been playing noisily and happily ever since I started writing this, but I can feel their game beginning to deteriorate as tensions run high. (‘Why do I always have to be the naughty unicorn? I want to be the dragon.’ ‘You can’t be the dragon, you’re wearing a t shirt.’) I need to conclude and run. And so, just this: thank you. Whether you’re reading by accident or design; whether you think you may read The Ship or avoid it like the plague; whether you’re a published writer or an aspiring one or one of those rare and fortunate people who are content exactly where they are, I’m grateful for the minutes you’ve given to reading this. Embrace your loved ones; feel pride in the joy you bring them; give yourself a small break to appreciate this moment, without worrying too much about the next. We’re doing ok, people. We’re doing ok.

Five Months till Publication – September

If you’ve ever made butter, you’ll recognize the feeling of churning the cream for hours and hours, seemingly getting nowhere, and then realizing all of a sudden that the grains of butterfat are beginning to form and find each other. It’s been a year since my book deal; now, all at once, we have a cover. A beautiful cover, that tells the story without giving it away. The first proofs are ready, and I’ve had my first quote. As The Life Of Brian’s Judith says when she crashes into the meeting of the Peoples’ Front of Judea, ‘Something’s happening, Reg. Something’s actually happening.’ It feels sudden. But of course, this something has been happening, not just during the year since I signed my publishing contract, but for over a decade before that. The butter will come, and it might look something like this. Believe me, it’s worth it.
the ship no clouds
And so what I want to focus on this month is how every failure in those ten years has been a part of what is happening now, so much so that to call the rejections, the closed doors, the miseries and disappointments ‘failures’ is as inaccurate as saying that David Mitchell ‘failed’ to make the shortlist of the Booker Prize, or that Ali Smith has twice ‘failed’ to win it. Any reader knows that if winning the Man Booker is the benchmark of success, most of our greatest reading experiences have been written by failures. It’s harder, though, for an aspiring writer to see success in any terms other than publication. Writing costs. Pouring out your lifeblood, creating time to write where no time exists, fighting the inexorable press of your commitments and your paid work and your partner and children – oh it’s hard. And if publication is the only validation that will do, then you’re throwing paper money into the wind and hoping a stray current of air will bring it back in the form of spun gold, or digging up chunks of marble hoping one of them will be Michelangelo’s David. It does happen. A first novel is accepted by the first agent who sees it; it’s bought quickly and goes on to great success. But that is someone else’s story.
I can only tell the story of rejections. Of agents not currently accepting unsolicited submissions; of printed postcards saying, ‘No, thank you,’ without any reference to the work I’d sent. I’ve got rejections that say, ‘If only you’d submitted this five years ago, but fashions have changed.’ I’ve even got one that says the decision would have been different if I’d had a media profile, but they couldn’t see a way to promote me. I had an agent for a short time, a new and excited agent who was certain my novel (not The Ship, incidentally) would sell within three weeks and make both our fortunes. It took a lot longer than three weeks for that not to happen. I entered competitions and wasn’t even shortlisted. I was commissioned to write a short story for an edition of a magazine that took two years not to be produced. I’ve wept and I’ve raged as light after hopeful light has been blown out, regardless of how hard I was holding my own breath. And still I wrote.
Getting a publication deal requires a perfect storm. Currents in the industry; agents’ and editors’ personal taste; business budgets; literary fashion…these things need to be in place for your work to be accepted, and these things are out of your control. But every setback contains a seed that might one day bear fruit. A rejection with feedback shows the agent gave your work time, and thinks it has potential. That agent is more likely to read your next novel with intent. The editor of the magazine that doesn’t make it to publication will still remember your name. And fashions change. Every rejection is evidence of your engagement with your aspiration. Every failure is an indication of your perseverance. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t weep and rage and rail against the rank injustice of the whole quixotic system. It does mean, though, that when rejections come, they should be seen for what they are.